The Nightmare

The Nightmare ★★★★

My eternal skepticism about unexplained phenomena is probably due to never having experienced anything I would interpret as supernatural. I'm fascinated by the notions, but I don't believe I've ever met a ghost, an alien, a demon, an angel or a chupacabra. I have, however, experienced at least two occasions where I awoke from a vivid nightmare, frozen in place, unable to move or scream or even whimper. One of those times, I perceived a fidgety humanoid figure moving around my bedroom, its features obscured by shadows, and I remember it coming very close to my face at one point, as if it were studying me. I was a teenager when these happened, it hasn't happened since, and I still assert that at least the first incident was the result of my then-drug-free brain reacting to a codeine prescription that I'd milked for too long after wisdom tooth surgery. Still, those occurrences are incredibly vivid for me to this day, and I got the tingles when I learned about sleep paralysis/terrors/whatever later in life, and how similar the details people reported were to my own recollection.

I found director Rodney Ascher's previous documentary, Room 237, a gleeful roll in the mud with far-gone obsessives, not believing a word but marveling at how it built and built into a rollicking shitstorm of convoluted film nerd conspiracy theories. But I never giggled at The Nightmare's conjectures. In collecting and dramatizing the experiences of eight people with chronic sleep paralysis, Ascher taps into a collective phenomenon made more menacing by its vague definition. I've never liked reenactments in documentaries, but the eerie ones here are excepted, not only because they recreate incidents that are impossible to depict otherwise, but because they're so effective in conveying overwhelming dread. I'm normally not susceptible to movie startles, but this documentary managed to make both me and my cat jump at different times. And, on a purely personal note, it actually solidified some details of my own thankfully minimal brushes with the subject - like, the idea that everyone here projects their own subconscious onto their experience might explain why the being I sensed in my room reminded me of a cartoon devil (I was raised Catholic). As with Room 237, Ascher provides an attractive alternative to standard talking heads, yet succeeds the most by refusing to pass judgment on his interview subjects, allowing viewers to make what they will of the unconventional perceptions these people are sharing.

I'm honestly not sure how The Nightmare would resonate if I didn't feel that connection to its topic, but I can't be objective here. Cynical ol' me was engrossed, frightened and even a tiny bit soothed.

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